VANCOUVER - People who text message are prone to becoming digital-age Pinocchios because the target of their fibs isn't present to witness their noses grow.
That's the newly-released finding of a University of British Columbia study that examined how technology impacts moral behaviour.
"Technology-mediated communication tools, we use them so much because they're so convenient and they're time-saving and efficient. But they do have this negative edge to them," said Associate Prof. Ronald Cenfetelli, co-author of the study.
"Less self-awareness, greater anonymity . . . more distance between people — it leads to less moral behaviour."
The researchers were prompted to investigate upon pondering why people won't hesitate to illegally download music or movies but are loathe to shoplift the same items from a store.
So they designed what appeared to be a simple stock-trading game to test their hypothesis.
Some 170 students were divided into pairs, with one participant role-playing a stock broker and the other acting as a stock buyer. The pairs interacted either face-to-face, or by video, audio or text.
Brokers were told they'd be rewarded with cash according to the number of stocks they sold, while buyers would be rewarded based on the stock's future value.
But brokers were given inside knowledge: the stock was rigged to eventually plummet.
After the mock transaction, researchers analyzed which communication medium led to the greatest incidence of deception.
The results weren't that surprising, Cenfetelli said. When all the facts were revealed, the buyers who got their information over text were 95 per cent more likely to report they had been lied to than those who used video.
"The more anonymous you perceived yourself to be, the less aware you were of your own self — (and) the more likely it is you would have engaged in some kind of deceitful behaviour," he said.
Buyers also reported being lied to 31 per cent more with texting than face-to-face, and 18 per cent more over texting than audio.
Video emerged as the medium people were least likely to use to tell tall tales, likely owing to a "spotlight effect," said Cenfetelli.
"You're on camera, it's like this big eye on you," he said. "You're very aware that you're being watched, even more than a face-to-face condition."
Armed with that knowledge, people should always consider what medium best supports the type of communication they will be engaging in.
People doing online shopping using websites like eBay should consider asking sellers to chat over Skype to ensure they're getting honest information. Video conferencing will likely be better for business than texted-based messaging.
Stressful or emotional situations are also best handled when people can chat it out in the same room, perhaps over a cup of tea.
"There was a case where a company terminated its employees and did so via email and it just led to this incredible backlash," Cenfetelli said.
And while it's easier to stretch the truth over text, fibbers should heed that so too comes greater consequence.
"People lied to in the technology conditions were far more angry, upset and willing to take revenge once found out," Cenfetelli said.
The reason? Relationships are built when people can look each other in the eye, he said, and that rapport buffers against fallout from falsehoods.
The study, conducted by the Sauder School of Business and Wichita State University, will be published in the March edition of the Journal of Business Ethics.
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